There’s nothing wrong with having a little pride in our country’s heritage

A section of the front page fromThe Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

A section of the front page from The Sentinel in 1918 when the Great War Armistice was declared.

If there was a poll to find the most unpopular person in England right now then Education Secretary Michael Gove would surely be in with a shout.

As many of his predecessors have been wont to do, Mr Gove has made it his business to tinker…

He’s tinkered with the curriculum. He’s even tinkered with teachers’ terms and conditions.

Granted, it has felt at times during the past three years as though the Government has been constantly attacking the teaching profession.

The problem is that when a politician attempts to change the way children are taught this inevitably puts him or her on a collision course with teaching professionals (and their unions).

Politicians can bring in all the experts they want: All the professors, academics and even celebrities. It won’t make a scrap of difference.

They will still be accused of poking their nose in business they know nothing about, bringing the morale of teachers down to rock bottom and endangering children’s education for generations to come.

In 2007 the then Labour Government controversially took the decision to remove key historical figures from the curriculum – including Churchill and Hitler – leading to accusations of a ‘dumbing down’.

Now Michael Gove wants our Winston back in again – and a lot more names besides.

His new draft curriculum would see five to 14-year-olds learning about the Romans, the Vikings, the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the development of the British Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, the First and Second World Wars and the creation of the NHS.

They would learn history up to 1066 at primary school and find out about the Norman Conquest during their secondary education.

Sound OK so far? Well, it did to me, but apparently not to some education professionals.

More than 100 teachers from a variety of schools have signed a letter to a national newspaper claiming the proposals amount to a breach of their legal duty to avoid “the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.

They point to the ‘jingoistic’ way in which both Mr Gove and the Prime Minister have promoted plans to change the curriculum and claim certain sections of the community – “ethnic minority groups and girls even” – may feel excluded by the proposals.

It’s at this point that I rather lose patience with the letter writers.

I often visit my daughters’ schools and enjoy viewing all the work they’ve done on topics as varied – for example – as space travel, the Great Fire of London and Diwali.

Frankly, I don’t have a problem with any of them and my girls will often come home and proudly explain what they’ve learned on any given day.

As far as I can see, studying something like the Gunpowder Plot and its remarkable legacy or the wonderful annual Hindu Festival of Light is all part of the rich tapestry of our unashamedly multi-cultural nation.

At the same time I can’t help but feel there’s been a creeping change in recent years in the way in which certain subjects and topics have been approached and taught in our schools.

I’m not sure at what point it happened but, at some time during the past 20 years, it seems to have ceased to be acceptable to be proud to be English or British in a historical context or to be proud of our country’s heritage.

Certain colossal figures have been airbrushed from the curriculum and, as a nation, we’ve done an awful lot of soul-searching about (and apologising for) past misdeeds.

I’ve never really understood this desperate need to appease and to avoid offending any and everyone because I don’t see how we, here in the 21st century, can be held responsible for events which happened hundreds of years ago.

For example, I don’t want an apology from the good people of France for the Battle of Hastings. Honestly, I’m over it.

The fact is Great Britain had an empire and it was mainly run or administered by men and thus the majority of ‘great’ (I use this term advisedly) historical figures were blokes.

I don’t say this to alienate women or girls: It’s just a fact.

Thankfully, the role of women has changed dramatically in the past 100 years or so to the extent that historians of the future will include far more women in the lists of ‘great historical figures’ than history teachers could when I was at school during the 1980s.

It’s also a fact that in any nation’s history there will be good and bad – things to be proud of and to be appalled at.

These are historical facts and I can’t see anything wrong in highlighting both while, at the same time, giving young people a sense of pride and belonging.

Surely it’s better that they learn about and admire figures such as Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale or Churchill than whichever
X-Factor winner happens to be on their iPod shuffle this week?

There will doubtless be a huge debate in the coming months about the way in which we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War and the Government will do that thing of trying not to upset our German friends.

I’ve already started ploughing through The Sentinel’s archive as we here at this regional newspaper plan our coverage.

It’s not about offending anyone. We take the view that it’s important to honour the men from our neck of the woods who fought and died in the mud at Mons, Passchendaele or Ypres – just as other media outlets will be doing for their ‘patch’.

To that end, I would argue that being partisan, in this case, isn’t a bad thing at all.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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Out with the cane and in with GCSEs for the Class of ’88

I will admit it. I still have to resist the urge to refer to John Lamont as ‘Sir’. I guess we’re all the same when it comes to our teachers.

In our heads we revert back to the days when these individuals were colossally important figures in our lives.

John never taught me and so, mercifully, I don’t have a nickname for him like ‘Sweaty’ or ‘Doc’ – as we did for other teachers.

He was simply ‘Mr Lamont’, head of English at Holden Lane High School in Sneyd Green. Crucially, for the purposes of this article, he also became our ‘head of year’ – which means no-one is better placed than he to run the rule over the Class of ’88.

John said: “Becoming head of year in the mid-Eighties is something I look back on with great fondness as perhaps one of the most enjoyable periods of the my teaching career.

“It meant that I could better get to know many of the pupils and it really helped me to learn more about the diverse community we drew youngsters from.”

John, now aged 62, is a Londoner who came to study at Keele University for four years and then never left North Staffordshire.

He began his teaching career in 1972 – spending seven years at Longton High School before moving on to Maryhill High School in Kidsgrove for a couple of years.

He joined the staff at Holden Lane High in 1981 and watched it grow to become the biggest school in the city.

With my rose-tinted spectacles hooked firmly on, I look back on the Eighties as a more innocent time when discipline was better in schools.

After all, there was no internet, no cyber-bullying and no mobile telephones to be confiscated.

John’s take on it is slightly different, however. He said: “The challenges facing teachers are different because of the technology that’s available these days – something which I just caught the start of, really, before I retired.

“I wouldn’t describe the Eighties as more innocent but I know what you mean. It was certainly easier back then to organise events and school trips and the like because there wasn’t all the form-filling and risk assessments or health and safety considerations.

“This has perhaps taken some of the fun out of the system by making it harder for teachers to be creative and give students different experiences.”

By experiences I think John means the wonderful eccentricity of the likes of my history teacher Geoff Ball who – with his clipboard under his arm – was the scourge of the school corridors, dishing out lines and detention for all.

Nevertheless, his brilliant teaching and classroom museum inspired me to work hard and get an ‘A’ when I left.

John is also talking about regular days out to the ice rink in Telford and numerous educational visits – including holidays to places like Valkenburg in Holland which was my first trip abroad.

He recalls one trip to Switzerland where, because of the unusual male/female signs on the toilet doors, he managed to persuade one pupil to roll up his trouser legs before going to spend a penny. No, it wasn’t me.

There was also the annual end of year show (they call it a prom these days) which once involved some of the lads in my year taking part in a beauty pageant and yours truly dressing up as Santa Claus for a Christmas ‘Blind date’ contest.

I can only apologise to Sarah Harrison who had to endure a candlelit meal with me in the dinner hall.

The Eighties was a time of huge changes in the education system – both nationally and locally.

The cane was banned in schools in 1986 – just too late to prevent a 13-year-old Martin Tideswell having it for back-chatting our form tutor, Mr Jones.

Then in 1988 my year group became the first to sit the new GCSE exams which, controversially, introduced coursework to the grading system.

John, who retired in 2010 and lives in Madeley, said: “During the Eighties there was a big change in the way in which the teaching of secondary school children was approached.

“Previously youngsters in the lower streams who were less academically gifted would perhaps have been earmarked for jobs in the pits or on the potbanks. Brighter children would have gone to work in a bank or carried on their studies at Sixth Form College.

“There had been plenty of jobs around but suddenly the landscape changed and there was a real emphasis on making sure children left school with as many qualifications as possible.

“Education became more tailored to the individual which was definitely a change for the better.”

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia